Leaving fintech to tackle food sustainability: Why I joined Vow

Soroush Pour
Apr 30, 2020 · 7 min read

A trip home, and a huge realisation

It was the end of 2017, and I had just experienced some burnout after my first year as an engineering manager at San Francisco financial technology company Plaid. The experience forced me to take some time away from work, head back to my hometown of Sydney, and ask some tough questions about my personal and professional life.

I spent 4 weeks in Australia, with days spent reconnecting with family and old friends, rediscovering my home city, reading, and taking time to rest and recharge. I didn’t entirely stop working, but what I did tackle was mostly creative, high-level exploration that was genuinely enjoyable and valuable.

In those 4 weeks, I came to 3 major conclusions:

  1. That as I had long suspected, I was excited to go back and build something from scratch again. The founding moment of a great company is so incredibly powerful and rare.
  2. That Sydney, with its many positive qualities as a city and rapidly growing startup ecosystem, was the right geographical location for me to do it from.
  3. That it was time for me to move out of financial technology and to work on other areas, that in my view, would be more impactful and important for the world.

To be clear, I had a great experience working in fintech and think that what we built as a team at Plaid was undeniably positive and impactful. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that there was still more I could be doing to address some of the most existential, ground-breaking questions being asked of humanity today.

But why food sustainability?

I needed to take some time to figure out the exact problem I wanted to tackle next. My partner at the time worked remotely, so together we traveled and lived in 4 countries across South America and the Asia-Pacific, enjoying and making the most of these invaluable cultural experiences. In parallel, I spent days exploring problem spaces that:

  • I had found interesting over the last few years but hadn’t had time to look into, or
  • Seemed to be a critical problem for the world, or
  • Seemed to be on the cusp of an important change; an inflection point.

Within 3 months — much sooner than I had expected — I landed on an area of interest that just wouldn’t let me go: the global food system.

It started with a conversation with my friend Aylon Steinhart at the Good Food Institute, who walked me through some of the immense challenges facing the world’s food supply. These challenges spanned everything from the environment, human health, food security and animal welfare, and if left unchecked, would catastrophically and negatively impact the lives of every human being on the planet. Talk about finding an impactful problem to solve!

Digging deeper

I spent the next 9 months researching and developing my own informed perspective on the global food system. I worked on farms and operated a stall in a farmer’s market in Otago, New Zealand; I read thousands of hours worth of books, articles and academic papers; I got on the phone with primary producers, distributors, processors, retailers, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs; I shared meals with ordinary people I met on my travels and got their perspectives on food; and most importantly, I spent time thinking critically, carefully, and from first principles about everything I saw — I wanted to form my own original perspectives and ideas about the food we eat.

Going through all of my conclusions from this time and the nuances there would easily take multiple blog posts. But one of my biggest takeaways from this period was that the majority of issues in our food system stemmed from just one particular area — industrial-scale animal agriculture. Finding good alternatives to animal agriculture would be the single most impactful way for our world to dramatically improve the health outcomes, food security, environmental impacts and ethics of our food.

OK, but what can I contribute?

The next question for me to answer was, “how do *I* meaningfully solve any of these problems?”. I consider myself a lifelong generalist who loves to learn and adapt to entirely new requirements, but even for me, this was genuinely a hard question to answer. I did eventually find the right answer for me, so hopefully my story can help anybody going through a similar journey to find their path too.

For many months, I gathered, brainstormed, catalogued and considered every possible solution to challenges in our food system, largely ignoring the constraints of what skills I brought to the table. The ultimate goal was to start a new company and make one of these solutions a reality.

These solutions started to group under common themes like cellular agriculture, plant-based foods, agricultural technology, and, a little later, the less obviously connected field of synthetic biology.

Discovering VOW

My research helped me uncover the fact that biotechnology — the application of advanced biology to solve humanity’s problems — would be a critical tool in the push to solve food’s challenges. I also recognised that the state of digital tools & automation — something I knew a lot about from my previous work — was seriously lacking in the biotechnology industry.

To get to concrete problems and start working closely with potential customers, I setup an engineering consultancy called Synbio Automation. This wasn’t anything complicated — just me, a business name, some business cards, and a couple of first customers who I had met through my exploration work — but it would let me get inside labs and start solving real problems, adding value, and testing product concepts.

VOW was one my first customers, and it soon became clear just how special they were. They were working on culturing meat from animal cells, but they certainly weren’t just another alternative protein company. There was deep sophistication in their scientific, digital technology and go-to-market roadmap. They celebrated the magic of food as a deeply human and positive cultural experience, while acknowledging the need to tackle its sustainability challenges. The team authentically cared about the mission, persevered doggedly and optimistically through daily challenges, and showed genuine warmth, respect and kindness towards one another.

After working together for a few months and some careful soul searching, it became clear to me that joining forces with the VOW team was the right choice. It would let me have the biggest possible positive impact and an incredibly fun and exciting journey on the way there. We’d work together to build a new kind of food company, one that would bring amazing new culinary experiences to people around the world without the ethical and sustainability compromises.

Engineering meets biology

Science today has a huge problem with siloed, intuition driven, bespoke work. It hasn’t embraced the huge benefits of modern tools & processes that empower individuals and enable teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals. Solving this would unlock immense scientific progress that the world desperately needs.

Scientific work today is also too manual and what scientific equipment does exist is not part of a cohesive, connected workflow. Biologists spend huge amounts of their time moving liquid between vessels, recording, transcribing and entering data rather than doing creative work. I want to use modern software, hardware, robotics to make the work of every scientist at VOW more creative, enjoyable, productive and impactful. I want to get rid of repetitive, low value work. I want us to be able to make amazing data-driven decisions that bring incredible culinary experiences to people all around the world.

Our engineering work here is truly full-stack — biology, hardware, backend, frontend, all the way up to the the food people eat! You couldn’t learn all of it in a lifetime if you tried, and that’s incredibly exciting as an engineer.

Teaching robots to culture meat

To achieve these big ambitions, we use TypeScript, Postgres, Retool, and Metabase on the software side, integrate that with modern robotics & hardware like OpenTrons, Chi.Bio, and Raspberry Pi, and use modern productivity tools like GSuite, Slack, Notion, Airtable, and Miro.

Despite the real world aspects of scientific lab work, our whole team recently shifted seamlessly to fully distributed work during COVID lockdowns. This speaks to the huge investments we’ve made so far in our automation and tooling, and makes me incredibly excited for what we can achieve in the months and years to come.

I’ve been working at VOW for 5 months now and I can honestly say without a hint of exaggeration that this is the best job I’ve ever had. If you’re an engineer or scientist who’s as excited as I am about solving the world’s biggest food sustainability problems alongside an incredible team, reach out! — soroush AT vowfood DOT com. We’re currently hiring for a number of scientific roles and will be adding engineering roles shortly as well! If you’re an engineer who’s interested keeping up-to-date with upcoming roles, definitely shoot me email.

Vow.

Vow — unlocking nature’s food secrets

Vow.

Vow is rebuilding our food system from the ground up, by making meat with animal cells, and not the animals themselves.

Soroush Pour

Written by

Head of Eng @VowFood, reinventing food for a sustainable, delicious future. We cultivate meat from cells, rather than an animal. Blog: soroushjp.com

Vow.

Vow is rebuilding our food system from the ground up, by making meat with animal cells, and not the animals themselves.

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